10-Gig switches duke it out

Two 10-Gig vendors -- one new, one returning -- face off in another Pacific shootout, this time with some surprising results

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The idea to test 10GbE (10-Gigabit Ethernet) switches again only six months after InfoWorld’s first 10-Gig test surprised some people. Why so soon?

Well, when we performed our first test, most vendors weren’t completely ready to ship enterprise-suitable products. The feedback we got at the time was that the companies needed another six months to get ready.

That turned out to be optimistic. Despite commitments from Foundry and Riverstone, for example, those companies backed out of testing at the last moment. However, two companies — fearless Force10 (which had wanted another go at the test) and Extreme Networks — were willing to risk it all with public testing at the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory (ANCL) at the University of Hawaii.

Both vendors took everything we could throw at them, and met the challenges we posed. Both have created extremely good products, and you should feel comfortable adding either to your network. There were differences, though, which may determine the switch you choose. For example, the Force10 products have much better WAN capabilities and can handle longer distances. The Extreme switches were a little easier to manage and are more widely known in enterprise networking.

We have changed our testing process somewhat since last spring. The number of tests grew, testing methods became more rigorous, and we added new challenges such as carrying HDTV traffic, the ACL (access control list) test, and an optional long link test. Both companies met or exceeded our expectations in these areas.

The bigger question is: Do you need 10GbE? It is starting to make inroads into the enterprise, especially the service provider space. If you find yourself trunking five or six GbE ports to get enough bandwidth, the answer is clearly yes. Likewise, if you must handle campus or metro area networks, then 10GbE is a natural. These switches will become linchpins in any 10-Gig structure — they are expensive, but they do what they promise, and they do it very well indeed.

Force10 E600

Reviewed in a near state of infancy six months ago, Force10 returned to this 10GbE shootout with marked improvements to the E600 and a whole new addition to the family. The company also arrived with a new attitude; whereas carriers were once its only serious customer, Force10 is now definitely taking aim at the enterprise, with a new enterprise-size switch entry and a whole lot of attention paid to corporate-style switch management.

At the core of its solution, the company again brought two of its 10-Gig core switch E600 powerhouses, this time with updated switch code and real management software. Force10 previously employed Cisco switches on the edge; for this test, it brought boxes sporting its own logo and the new switch’s model name, E300.

The E600 is physically unchanged since we tested it in April. The box is a behemoth third-height 19-inch rack chassis capable of 900Gbps’ worth of non-blocking switch fabric. The box can carry seven line card slots, four redundant AC power supplies, or an optional dual-redundant DC power module. Aside from line cards with 1GbE and 10GbE ports, you can also integrate the E600 into a WAN architecture via SONet (Synchronous Optical Network) cards capable of throughput between OC-3 and OC-192.

(For an expanded table of Force10's and Extreme Networks' 10GbE switch features, click here.)

The E300 switch is brand-spanking new — so new, in fact, that it was still in beta at test time (both Force10 and Extreme agreed to have their beta products scored in our tests). This box also comes in a 19-inch rack chassis, but only half as tall as the E600. The E300 also carries six line cards and only two redundant AC power supplies, although it can also handle the dual-redundant DC power modules. Line cards are interchangeable across the entire Force10 chassis product line.

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Force10 again focused on its EtherScale architecture, which extends across its entire switch line. This technology combines six custom ASICs in the E600 and three in the E300, allowing both chassis to support large numbers of high-speed ports — as many as 168 ports of Gigabit Ethernet or 14 ports of 10GbE for the E600.

The logic behind Force10’s EtherScale approach is based on a series of questions: How do you keep a single faulty port from affecting an entire card or even an entire chassis? How do you manage graceful restarts and shutdowns? How do you combine advanced routing protocols with other high-speed switch tasks without smoking your box? To answer these questions, EtherScale assigns individual CPUs (in the form of custom ASICs) to specific tasks. This provides good fail-over protection, and allows better performance: When one or more CPUs are idle, they are assigned extra tasks that might be bogging down the other CPUs.

From what we can tell, the approach works. EtherScale allows Force10 to pump non-blocking, line-rate forwarding across all its switch ports, whether 1GbE or 10GbE ports, even when we applied ACLs and QoS requirements.

The E300 wasn’t the only item Force10 brought in swaddling clothes. In the previous test, Force10 managed its entire solution from the command line, which we thought was fine for its intended audience of carrier-class customers but too inflexible for the corporate market. This time, Force10 unwrapped its own beta graphical management software. This stuff was so early the company hadn’t even come up with a marketing-approved name for it yet, calling it EMS (Enterprise Management Software) for the time being (it will likely be released sometime early this year).

Despite its youth, EMS made a favorable impression. The software is 100-percent Java, making it platform-neutral and easily accessible via the Web. It begins with a topical network map that drills down to specific device management. As long as your products come from Force10, EMS will auto-discover them as well as all installed line cards. These are shown in a graphical view with color-coded alert status for each port or device.

We also liked EMS’ capability of showing user-defined time slices of monitored activity in a markedly clean line, bar, or scatterplot graph format; simply moving the cursor over the graph will bring up specific data point information. It’s a great way to get a handle on a large chunk of information quickly.

The EMS software is the first real evidence that Force10 considers enterprise customers a viable audience. Unfortunately, EMS currently only handles Force10 products. Even its SNMP reader will only take Force10 MIBs (Management Information Bases), but the company is considering adding support for all standard MIBs in the near future. This is a first, critical step if Force10 intends to manage cross-platform.

The E600-based solution handled basic throughput with aplomb, accepting line rate with no problems. It managed similar numbers in an optional 50km long-link test and managed a fail-over test between core switches running line rate traffic in slightly more than 0.3 seconds, a very good time.

Finishing the long link test required the use of a long link 10-Gig card, which would tack an additional $120,000 onto the switch’s price tag. Oversubscription wasn’t a problem, even when we oversubscribed multiple ports, including one running HDTV traffic.

In our advanced throughput tests utilizing multiple QoS requirements and access control lists, we asked each vendor to handle only 24 access control lists (a number garnered from our real-life experience with corporate and government networks — we’ve not seen a network requiring more than 24 ACLs). Force10 ignored that requirement and immediately configured the switches to run using more than 300 ACLs. Even at that high number, performance didn’t waver from the non-ACL iteration.

Although its performance prowess is unquestioned, Force10 still battles a Johnny-come-lately stigma. Its attention to broadening not only its product line but also its feature set is a step toward changing that impression in the enterprise market. Considering the relatively low price tag, the Force10 E-Series should definitely be on your 10-Gig watch list.

Extreme Networks BlackDiamond

Extreme Networks has been around quite a while longer than Force10, and though it declined to participate in our last 10-Gig roundup, this time the purple packet eaters showed up in Honolulu with bells on.

Extreme’s 10-Gig solution revolves around two BlackDiamond 10808 core switches. These bad boys can handle as many as eight 10GbE ports, 64 1GbE fiber, or 64 10/100/1000 ports. On the WAN side, they can run cards utilizing as many as 16 OC-12 or 32 OC-3 ports. On the edge, Extreme brought along two Summit 5iTX chassis, each configured with 24 10/100/1000 ports, and one 10GbE uplink. (For an expanded table of Force10's and Extreme Networks' 10GbE switch features, click here.)

The BlackDiamond core switches were truly something to behold — and not just because they’re purple. Like the Force10 machine, BlackDiamond works on a multiple ASIC architecture. But whereas Force10 places great emphasis on redundant, modular, and hot-swappable power supplies, Extreme extends this philosophy to include I/O modules and fans as well, meaning you can literally replace the entire switch in a building-block fashion.

Extreme has also done excellent work on the BlackDiamond’s day-to-day operational capabilities. Not only can two BlackDiamonds fail over without a performance hit (as evidenced in our testing), but you can even upgrade switch code across a BlackDiamond farm without bringing down the core. The boxes also handle multiple switch configurations as well as corresponding ExtremeWare images from BlackDiamond’s impressively polished management software.

The BlackDiamond is comfortable in even the most complex enterprise architectures. The box can handle not only ATM, but also SONet packets for WAN connectivity. Its security features include excellent ACL support as well as granular access profiles and support for RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) and SSH2.

In a cluster, BlackDiamonds can be configured not only as fail-over partners, but load-sharing partners as well. They also support the latest in advanced routing protocols, including Extreme’s own Standby Router Protocol, Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol, and OSPF Equal Cost Multipath Routing.

Our sleek, plum-colored Summit 5iTX edge switches were able partners for the BlackDiamond core boxes, arriving with 12 10/100/1000 ports and four additional GBIC (Gigabit Interface Converter)-based ports as well as redundant power supplies. The edge switches’ 32Gbps non-blocking switch fabric supplies a power belied by their sleek frame, and they fully support all the advanced routing and VLAN options provided by Extreme’s new OS.

Which brings us neatly to what really made the Extreme solution tick: the software. ExtremeWare doubles as switch OS and management platform and has been completely redesigned in the past three years, and it shows.

Management happens via a graphical Java interface or the command line — a brand new command line, although Extreme took pains to imitate its previous syntax as much as possible. ExtremeWare is bolstered by its underpinnings, which amount to a full Unix-style OS. The company won’t tell us specifically what platform the code is based on, but we’re betting it begins with an “L.”

Extreme now leverages not only the syntax power of a full-fledged OS, but the architectural capabilities as well. For instance, the present iteration of ExtremeWare makes use of three virtual routers by default. Because managed networks generally have their own routing tables, this default diminishes your routing hop headaches when dealing with any existing route tables. Extreme intends to add more virtual routers in future versions, boosting performance further.

Even more exciting is ExtremeWare’s newfound modularity: Extreme can tailor its OS to suit any device in its product stable. A few switch vendors open their OSes to proprietary modification, but it’s a real headache for them. With a full-fledged OS, Extreme allows third-party ISVs and even customers to tailor software solutions to make the best possible use of 10GbE. Because 10GbE is still seeking an enterprise seat, any additional footholds it can grab are good, even if in only proprietary niches.

The combination of BlackDiamond power, Summit edge connectivity, and ExtremeWare flexibility did extremely well in our tests. Throughput and fail over were consistent with both Extreme’s own performance claims and Force10’s competitive results. In advanced throughput tests utilizing multiple QoS profiles (including a live HDTV video stream) and several ACLs, the switches hummed along at line rate with nary a dropped packet.

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